Beauty & Crime

Suzanne Vega is so “New York” that its surprising to remember that she was born in Santa Monica, California. Vega’s early work painted portraits of young bohemian street musicians and artists in the Lower East Village during the post-punk era of the early and mid 1980s. Vega adeptly translated those creative intellectuals, their night time prowls and wanderlust affairs with literate lyrics and simple folk chord structures.

Fast forward to 2007 Manhattan where a middle-aged sophisticate sits in the window of her high rise apartment and ponders the mad sweep of the city below – all her beauty and crime and wounded spaces. This is the backdrop and subject for Suzanne Vega’s new release, a tribute to her beloved New York City and its throngs of natives and tourists. It is also a compilation of songs that reveal Vega’s personal history as it relates to the metropolis.

Beauty & Crime opens with “Zephyr & I” which finds Vega reminiscing about the golden days of her youth while walking down West End Avenue with one of New York’s legendary graffiti artists. “Ludlow Street” pays tribute to Vega’s younger brother Tim Vega a renowned Graffiti artist who passed away in 2002. (The album is dedicated to him). By the time Vega hits the 3rd track “New York Is a Woman” it is clear why Vega so closely identifies with this city. The city’s persona is one of a lady who has been around the block, has had her reputation besmirched but manages to maintain her dignity with the help of a sharp wit, sense of irony and an alluring beauty.

Vega also reveals glimpses of the people closest to her – her daughter Ruby (“As You Are Now”) and current husband (“Bound”). “Frank & Ava,” a song about the tumultuous relationship between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, can easily be read as a look back at Vega’s marriage to producer Mitchell Froom.

Vega takes a couple of new steps with this disc; she signed with the jazz label Blue Note Records and works for the first time with Producer Jimmy Hogarth. The songs were originally recorded in analog form for a warmer sound but then enhanced digitally. Her backing band joins her for the recording and KT Tunstall joins on backing vocals and vocal arrangements. Long-time collaborator Tchad Blake mixed the disc.

With Beauty and Crime Suzanne Vega says she wanted to create a modern classic with a nostalgic feel. Time will tell whether she accomplished that heady feat but if you are a tried and true Vega fan all the myriad elements of her life and career are beautifully rendered in yet another smart record from one of pop's most literate writers.

Rosemary Welsch, WYEP Afternoon Mix host